As the opening month of the fall season comes to a close and the weak are weeded out in favor of the few strong and many disappointments, it's time to take a look at the best (and worst) of the rest in the Fall 2011 Television season. There are a few to get to so let's get on with it.
**American Horror Story: B**
What you need to know: Ryan Murphy returns to FX after a six season run with Nip/Tuck. I can't say with certainty that American Horror Story will last six seasons (or if it's intended to) but ratings have been decent thus far.
What I think: Someone likes haunted house movies. In the pilot alone, creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk throw everything at the wall, tossing in a fright here and a scare there, hoping something --anything-- sticks. Luckily for them, much of it works. It's genuinely creepy in places (including Dylan McDermott seeing 60-plus Frances Conroy as a sexy maid in her 20s), and plays like a cheap horror flick, which is a good thing. The problem might lie within the pacing of the show. Too much happens in the pilot, some of which should've been spread out over several episodes. If a game plan is in place and the show has plenty more in its bag of tricks, great. But Ryan Murphy doesn't have a track record on his side. Nip/Tuck was fantastic during its rookie year, but my Season 2, I lost interest quickly and never went back. I can be wrong on it (and probably am), but I know I'm not wrong with FOX's Glee. Currently in its third season and watching as its ratings erode week-to-week, most agree the show has lost its magic. Which is why I'm fearful that a show with such tricky subject matter to begin with will degenerate into laughably bad by Season 2 or 3. But I maintain it's a great show with lots of potential if handled properly. Dylan McDermott holds his own to the obvious star, Connie Britton.
What the future holds: The X-Files vet James Wong (writing partner to Glen Morgan) and Whedon-verse favorite Tim Minear are on the writing staff. Their experience alone can only be thought of as an asset.
**The Playboy Club: D+**
What you need to know: It's canceled. I can't think of three more deserving cancelations this season than The Playboy Club, Free Agents and Charlie's Angels. Talk about massive misfires.
Why it failed: Literally everything was wrong with the show. Let's start with the Playboy bunnies: how can a show centered on sexy young women affiliated with Playboy possibly air on a network like NBC? This show was meant for HBO or Showtime. But nudity isn't the only solution. The show strives to be "Mad Men for Playboy", right down to star Eddie Cibrian imitating the look, voice and demeanor of Jon Hamm's Don Draper. If you like cheap imitations, this one was for you. In the real world, Cibrian doesn't hold a candle to Hamm's acting chops. Finally, nothing jumped out as interesting in the pilot. Every time a half-decent idea strolls along (I liked the atmosphere between the Bunnies, which should've been the entire focus of the show), they throw in a dozen bad ideas, not the least of which was an opening minutes twist in which Bunny Amber Heard kills a man accidentally. Not only does the twist suck the life from the show, it should've came at the end of the pilot, after establishing all characters. Why should we care that the guy is dead, or that Amber Heard's character did it? We knew nothing about anyone in the first minutes. Disastrous results all around. The Hef can't be proud.
What you need to know: Emily VanCamp and Madeleine Stowe are the most fun rivals currently on television. Stowe's frigid, detached Victoria Grayson, and VanCamp's steely-eyed, vengeful Emily Thorne/Amanda Clarke make an already good show that much more fun.
What I think: As a quiet fan of CW's guilty pleasure, Gossip Girl, I feel like I've found a new favorite primetime soap opera in Revenge. Gossip Girl's days are numbered and Revenge is poised to be a worthy replacement. Emily VanCamp plays Amanda Clarke, a girl poised to exact revenge on the people that destroyed her family. She inherits her father's money after he dies (while she's in juvenile detention) and uses the money to assume the role of Emily Thorne, move in to the Hamptons next to Stowe's Victoria Grayson and the bloodshed begins. It's not a new concept on television to root for the anti-hero hell bent on doing bad things to get their way (most notably Dexter) but it doesn't make it any less enjoyable. Top it off with the fact that VanCamp and Stowe are perfect fits for their roles. My only complaint is the glut of typical side characters for this type of show. Of course they'll all play a bigger role down the road.
What the future holds: These types of shows don't have time on their side. The earliest seasons are typically the best days, so enjoy it while it's good.
**Terra Nova: B**
What you need to know: TV's most expensive pilot is akin to the earlier forms of special effects in film. Yeah they spent more on it than any other TV show of its time, but it still looks cheap in spots.
What I think: After hearing many negative opinions on this Spielberg-produced pilot, I was ready to write this one off as another failed experiment in primetime sci-fi. Boy was I wrong. It's not without flaws (many, actually), but the heart of the show is in the right place. There's something refreshing about a sci-fi series that isn't entirely dark, moody and without personality. Terra Nova is, at its heart, about this family that travels 85 million years into the past (when Larry King was just a cranky adolescent) to help others find solutions to the problems of tomorrow (2149, specifically, so way beyond our own problems). It's not unlike something involving Spielberg to be centered so fully on family. Look at much of his most popular work and family is always an integral component. Unfortunately, at times, the storylines involving the kids plods into teenage drama territory. And yes, the visual effects need polish. Sometimes you need to either go big (with big screen special effects, worth over $100 million), or go home (play it safe with either basic visuals or none at all). Terra Nova plays it in the middle, spending $20 million on the pilot, and while I believe the effects can look overly fake, I admire the attempt.
What the future holds: Consider Terra Nova the prototype in big budget television. Currently, television is produced on a meager budget compared to big screen counterparts. In ten, twenty, even thirty years, budgets will increase, visual effects will advance and you'll be able to say to your grandchildren "Back in my day, you had to pay good money to see these flying spaceship thingys fly across the screen! Now get me my walker, you whippersnapper!" Yes, you will also transform into your grandparents. But at least TV will look better than ever. As for Terra Nova the pilot and future prospects, there's so much more to explore in this universe, and I hope I'll get the opportunity to do so. Otherwise, Terra Nova may end up the Star Trek: TOS of this generation.
**The Secret Circle: C**
What you need to know: The CW has evolved from teenage dramas to teenage dramas with a fantasy twist.
What I think: It's been over a month since I've seen this pilot (currently paired with The Vampire Diaries, CW's most popular series) and I've forgotten many of the details. It's also been a month since I've seen Ringer's pilot and remember most of what I had seen, so I can only deduce that The Secret Circle wasn't that good. But I don't remember hating it. Just feeling rather indifferent to the whole thing. It's about a teenage girl who meets five friends, all descended from powerful witches, as she adjusts to a new life in a new town with newly discovered powers. It's interesting if it wasn't on CW, where melodramatic teenage drama will overpower the central fantasy theme. Not that there's anything wrong with that!
What the future holds: It's in the best timeslot on the network, which is not as profitable as it sounds. It's currently dropping over 30% from The vampire Diaries, on average, every Thursday night. It'll stick around for now, but come May, CW might try a new fantasy-based drama to pair up with The Vampire Diaries.
What you need to know: It's been eight long years of The Grudge 2, The Return and Suburban Girl before Buffy herself, Sarah Michelle Gellar, made her triumphant return to television.
What I think: The most ambitious pilot of the season features versatile Gellar in dual roles, playing twins Bridget and Siobhan. The Buffy charm is absent here in favor of more brooding, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. One can hope as the series progresses, we'll see the more fun side of Gellar we all saw for seven seasons on the vampire series. One twin mysterious disappears, leaving the other twin able to assume the first twin's life because she's running from her own demons in the previous life. She didn't bank that her twin sister would have demons of her own, as the opening minutes reveals. Confusing? A tad. But the pilot comes across almost cinema-like in its delivery. It certainly feels about primetime TV (and definitely The CW). I sincerely hope it doesn't get lost on the wrong network, because of course it has elements that make it fit right in on the CW Network.
What the future holds: A full season pickup came recently, ensuring its safety for one season. The show is posting some decent (for CW) numbers, routinely beating veterans Gossip Girl and 90210. As long as The CW sticks around, Ringer will as well.
**Hart of Dixie: C+**
What you need to know: Rachel Bilson returns to television. No seriously, that's all you need to know.
What I think: Rachel Bilson is giving only half of what her talents can offer. I'm not saying she's Academy Award worthy in her performances, but she has been charming and likable in most of her previous roles, including on FOX's The OC. In the pilot of Hart of Dixie, Bilson plays it safe, bordering on the unlikable and arrogant. I realize the character is a big city girl adapting to Small Town America, but I feel more could have been accomplished by playing down the culture divide between the character and her new surroundings. As a medical drama, it fails to provide any excitement akin to ER or House. As a teen drama, it's a bit too mature in its presentation. As an adult drama, it's too wrapped up in trying to please a younger audience. Confused? Not as much as this show. But it's a testament to my like for Bilson that I'm not writing the show off completely. It deserves to be better, and I feel it will be eventually.
What the future holds: It's almost anti-CW in every way, despite all the ingredients for a teen-targeted drama. But of all the new shows, it`s easily the most successful so far.
**Pan Am: C+**
What you need to know: The second of the 1960s-based dramas of the season. Like The Playboy Club before it, I doubt Pan Am will be flying high for long.
What I think: It's okay. I didn't find it terribly appealing, but can't put my finger on what doesn't work. It is what it is. I'll support anything Christina Ricci does and I've felt since her appearance on Grey's Anatomy that she should do television, but this won't be the project to get her on the TV map. I wish I had more to say, but it just didn't grab me and I didn't hate it either. It tries hard and I can see it on the screen but not all the wheels are turning properly.
What the future holds: If ratings continue to slide, ABC won't be sticking with it for long. It started off by building from the Wisteria Lane inhabitants on Desperate Housewives and quickly dropped almost 50% of its viewers. You could call that a bad start.
What you need to know: Developers (of an original series) Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa are veteran television writers, having worked on two of my all-time favorite shows: The X-Files and 24. It's no wonder I think this is the best pilot of the season and one of the best of the past ten years.
What I think: I don't know how to pinpoint exactly why Homeland works so well in its pilot episode. First of all, the entire episode plays out like it should be on the big screen. The premise is simple: A bipolar CIA agent (Claire Danes) is given information in Iraq that an American soldier has turned. Months later, a presumed dead for eight years soldier (Damian Lewis) is found alive in a hole. America celebrates while Danes believes she's found her turned soldier. There aren't any action-packed scenes in the pilot, like those found on 24, but it doesn't need them. I won't say it's a smarter show, but it's a slower, more methodical version of 24. Where 24 goes for excitement, Homeland settles for a more thought-out approach. And the acting is tremendous from the four leads (Danes, Lewis, Mandy Patinkin & Morena Baccarin) while never being overly flashy. You believe that they're all real people with real problems looking to fit into the real world. I can't say enough good things about it. It's not for everyone. Again, it's not riveting in the least (although that can change as the show progresses), but it's a damn good show that struck a chord with me.
What the future holds: Guaranteed Emmy nods for Claire Danes and Mandy Patinkin. The show itself poses a serious threat to Mad Men's current four-strong Emmy wins for Best Drama. As for the show itself, I hope it ends at the right time and not a season longer.
-Once Upon a Time (which I will review at a later date) premiered strong this past Sunday with over 12 million viewers, handily outrating the aging ladies of Desperate Housewives. Whether this ratings story has a fairy tale ending remains to be seen.
-CBS renewed Unforgettable and Person of Interest for full first seasons. I guess I'll just hang on to my "Unforgettable forgotten by audiences" and "Person of (Little) Interest" for May.
-AMC has renewed The Walking Dead for a third season. Somewhere, Frank Darabont is quietly stewing.
-2 Broke Girls continues to impress on Monday nights, growing out of How I Met Your Mother and threatening Ashton Kutcher's Two and a Half Men as that show continues to decline from the curiosity-fueled season premiere. That's what you get when you go from the Warlock to Kelso.
Thank you again for reading any or all of this column. Feel free to sound off below in the comments section and let me know what you think was the best pilot of the season. Agree that Homeland, New Girl and Revenge are the best new shows this season? Disagree with my negative takes on Pan Am, The Secret Circle and Unforgettable? Let me know what you think.